Gorillaz is Damon Albarn’s playground, the virtual/cartoon band he co-created with fellow Brit and artist/illustrator Jamie Hewlett almost 20 years ago. Gorillaz was conceived as four fictional, animated musicians who pureed several styles of music into lively and invigorating songs: several flavors of rock and pop, hip-hop and rap, electronic and dance music and moments of reggae.
Their albums included many appearances by well-known guests. And the combination of the clever novelty of the concept and the execution of the keen songwriting and the music attracted plenty of attention from music fans in the mood for both.
Friday night, Gorillaz drew a near sold-out crowd of about 12,000 to the Sprint Center. It was the band’s fourth tour since 2001, but its first appearance in Kansas City, and the crowd reacted accordingly: with plenty of warmth, enthusiasm and gusto.
Earlier Gorillaz tours developed mixed reputations for how Albarn and his crew tried to execute the concept: a cartoon band performing, live, music that was recorded heavily populated with guest singers and musicians. The previous tour, the extravagant Escape to Plastic Beach Tour of 2010, involved more than three dozen singers, musicians and others. Friday’s performance was more modest – about 18 musicians, singers and guests. Nonetheless it was a spectacle in its own right.
Albarn and his entourage are touring on “Humanz,” the collective’s fifth studio album, released in April. Like its predecessors, it includes collaborations with a host of famous musicians, such as Grace Jones, Anthony Hamilton, Mavis Staples and a few guests who made appearances at the Sprint Center: Vince Staples, Danny Brown and –surprise – De La Soul.
Much of Gorillaz music, lyrically, is dark and socio-political. Musically, it favors deep soulful and funky grooves and melodies plus plenty of forays into rap and hip-hop. It makes for an intriguing blend of provocative lyrics swathed in viscerally arousing music and groove.
They would play eight “Humanz” songs, more than one-third of the set list and as many as they played from “Demon Days,” their most successful album, in the U.S. and worldwide.
Albarn was backed by six backup singers who, all night, added layers of luxuriant harmonies to songs cast in a variety of styles. Mostly, they gave each track a transcendent gospel vibe. His band was equally as vibrant and dynamic.
Behind the live performers, a video screen broadcast a mix of images, many featuring the four founding animated members – 2-D, Murdoc Niccals, Noodle and Russel Hobbs. Amid the video footage, a barrage of lasers was fired throughout, adding to the visual feast.
Despite its heavy focus on two albums, the set list showcased the variety of genres and styles Albarn taps into via Gorillaz. “Saturn Barz” and “Rhinestone Eyes,” which seemed to address climate change – “The waves are rising this time of the year / And nobody seems to know what to do with the heat” -- fused trippy hip-hop, soul and gospel.
“Every Planet We Reach Is Dead,” backed by some apocalyptic “Mad Max” footage on the big screen, sounded like a lost Massive Attack track. “Sleeping Powder” was a slick rock-meets-rap collision. “On Melancholy Hill” was a threesome among Brit-pop, rock and hip-hop. And “Busted and Blue” bore a heavy ‘80s soul vibe, like a Spandau Ballet ballad dressed in gospel.
Vince Staples, who, with Danny Brown, opened the show, joined the crew for a raucous rendition of “Ascension,” a standout “Humanz” track that addresses race – “This is the land of the free … Where you can live your dreams as long as you don’t look like me.”
After that song further ignited a crowd that had been stoked from the start, Peven Everett came out and ignited another thunderous outburst during “Strobelite,” a pop/funk/R&B dance celebration that evoked the sounds of Earth Wind & Fire and New Kids on the Block.
Other highlights: the sinister and nourish “Sex Murder Party” featuring Zebra Katz; the heavy and industrial “O Green World,” which apparently made its first live appearance since the “Escape” tour; “Kids With Guns,” a rant with a Clash-like vibe that inspired Albarn to make a mad, rampant dash into the rear of the arena and back, spreading a wildfire mood; and the riotously joyful “We Got the Power,” a love-each-other anthem during which guest singer Camille Berthomeier did some surfing into a crowd that received the message evangelically.
As good as all that was, nothing surpassed the encore, which included an appearance by De La Soul during Gorillaz’s most popular song, “Feel Good Inc.” and during which the crowd was coaxed into howling several rounds of “ha ha ha ha ha.” Next came the nearly as popular “Clint Eastwood,” which included some virtual raps from Del tha Funkee Homosapien.
Albarn quelled the mood from there with “Don’t Get Lost in Heaven,” a song that sounds like an uplifting pop/gospel-ish ballad but that seems to be about the perils of drug abuse.
Gorillaz may be two-dimensional and animated conceptually, but Albarn’s music and extravagant live performances showcase something deeper and real, like the virtues and weaknesses of living and breathing mortals, or “Humanz” as he spells it.
M1 A1: Last Living Souls; Saturnz Barz; Tomorrow Comes Today; Rhinestone Eyes; Every Planet We Reach Is Dead; Sleeping Powder; On Melancholy Hill; Busted and Blue; El Manana; Ascension; Strobelite; Submission; Andromeda; Sex Murder Party; O Green World; Kids With Guns; We Got The Power. Encore: Stylo; Feel Good Inc.; Clint Eastwood; Don’t Get Lost in Heaven; Demon Days